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Rare red-necked grebes flee to Lake Norman for winter

I have written a couple of times this winter about the influx of waterfowl into the southeastern United States. Ice covers an unusually large portion of the Great Lakes this year, and that has pushed many species that winter there down into the region. I joined eight other birders last Sunday for a boat ride on Lake Norman to look for rarities. What resulted was the most productive trip ever.

Red-throated loons and red-necked grebes are rare inland in North Carolina. Indeed, the red-necked grebe is rare anywhere in the state. I may have seen half a dozen in 40 years of North Carolina birding, yet in one binocular view that day, I had 13 at once. Single red-throated loons show up briefly on the lake every few years, but that day, we saw 10 birds in one group.

Gulls are a big attraction for serious birders in the winter, and Lake Norman hosts a huge flock of several thousand in the evening. A boat can slowly circle the flock, and birders on board can leisurely scan for rarities. Winter gull watchers in the Southeast are always on the lookout for the “white-winged gulls” which are Iceland and glaucous gulls.

Take a look at your field guide and today’s photo, and you will see why they are collectively known as white-winged gulls. The wingtips of both species are frosty white, with no black tips, as seen on the species more common here. Any birding outing is an instant success if one of these gulls is found. They are rare in North Carolina, and there were no records of them from Mecklenburg County – until that day. Out of a congregation of perhaps 7,000 gulls, a white ghost materialized in front of the boat. It was an immature Iceland gull, a first for county records and perhaps the farthest inland ever reported in North Carolina.

The winter has been truly remarkable for local rarities. Last winter, it was the finch invasions. This year, it is the snowy owls and waterfowl. Every year is different, and that’s what keeps birders going into the field every year with anticipation.